I was determined to give Margaret Atwood a fair trial. Today was a great day to do it. I set aside an hour, made a mug of hot, sweet tea, settled into the gold chair in the library (see picture at far left). Miss Woodhouse was warm, heavy, furry, and purring in my lap. It was raining pretty hard outside and the wind was rising. About 50 degrees. The radiator was warming up. We could hear it ticking.
I opened. Oryx and Crake and turned to page 3 (the first page with text), which has 20 lines. Somewhere between the end of line 17 and the beginning of line 18 I fell asleep. I was out for nearly an hour. Very refreshing.
So, back to line 1. The story begins in a ruined world some time in the future. A combination of bioengineering that got out of hand, climate change (much for the worse), and some as yet unnamed catastrophe has made America unrecognizable and nearly unliveable.
In theory I should have loved the book because it's the sort of story I like: a self-reliant man re-creating a livable world through self-reliance and ingenuity. (Think Tom Hanks in Cast Away.) In addition, the prose is very smooth. No editorializing, just a straightforward story. We meet Snowman, a Robinson Crusoe-like character, a man left in a destroyed setting where he forages for what he wants and needs in abandoned houses and crashed cars. He is a kind of guru to the band of semi-human children who roam the beach gleaning flotsam that has washed up onto the shore.
We flash back to Snowman's childhood, when he was Jimmy, with parents and a recognizable home. His mother is apparently bipolar or severely depressed and we suspect it is because the family lives in a company-owned house in a company-owned hyper-gated community in which she feels trapped. His father is a bioengineer working on combined life forms. Pigs that can grow organs for human transplant. Pets that are a cross between a skunk and a racoon. The world has become extremely dangerous with the gulf between the privileged like Jimmy and his family and the people who live in the cities, called Plebeland, having widened to unbridgeable size.
I gave this book my best shot. I read through page 53, slowly and as open-mindedly as I could manage. I was as fair to Atwood as I could manage. But I couldn't tolerate the anxiety and sense of foreboding that drenches this story nor could I manage that suspension of disbelief that the reader has to achieve before a story can become worthwhile reading. I don't tolerate science fiction or fantasy very well.
And so Oryx and Crake is on its way back to the library and Margaret Atwood is crossed off my list more or less permanently, with the understanding that this is my problem and not the author's. The fault is not in Margaret Atwood but in in ourself.